Caring for Goats in Winter

As the cold weather once again approaches, we see many concerned goat owners on Facebook wondering how to keep their beloved goats safe, healthy and warm in freezing temperatures.  This concern is understandable, particularly for goats that originated in a warmer climate, like our Nigerian Dwarf goats.

Caring for goats in winter is really quite simple, though, so let’s get to the basics, followed by a discussion on additional practices that can help you raise hardy, healthy goats in cold weather.

Hay

Rumen activity, the process by which a goat digests its food, generates quite a lot of heat.  Long stem roughage in the form of grass or alfalfa hay is essential to a healthy, fully functioning rumen.  Keep hay out free choice for your goats all winter.  This means all night and all day.  If you lock them in their shelter at night, put a hay feeder inside, along with a source of clean, unfrozen water.

Shelter

We live in an area where winter temperatures will get to below zero.  Our goats have free access to a 3-sided shelter that has a thick layer of straw.  Until freezing, the shelter is unbedded to keep it more sanitary–they usually use it only in rain during summer months–but once we get into cold temperatures, we deep bed it with about 12″-15″ of straw.  As it breaks down, we continue adding layers to keep it thick and comfy.  In the coldest of weather, they’ll snuggle down into the straw next to each other and stay warm.  Come spring, assuming this straw was unsprayed before harvest, it can be put in the compost for garden mulch.

Water

If your water source freezes in winter, you’ll either need to bring thawed water twice a day or get a heated water bucket, like this one we use for the bucks.  Some goat owners like to bring their goats hot water daily.  You can do this if you prefer, but I haven’t noticed any appreciable difference in any measurable trait–water consumption, milk production, etc.–by doing so.  No matter how you water, just be sure they have access to clean drinking water constantly.

Heat Sources

I absolutely, unequivocally reject any external heat sources for my goats in day to day winter operations.  In my years of goat raising, not one single winter has gone by that someone hasn’t lost a barn–and sometimes goats–to a heat lamp or other heat source.  Heat lamps in particular are the main culprits for these fires, but they are not alone – space heaters, water heaters and other heat sources have made headlines as well.  Additionally, remember that feeling when you walk outside in a t-shirt to find it’s below freezing?  Goats adapted to a heat source have greater trouble adapting to outdoor temperatures, but goats without a heat source are perfectly adapted and comfortable in cold weather, assuming their basic needs are met.  Overall, there are far more risks than potential benefits to providing heat to livestock.  The only exception I ever make to this is if we are in single digit or below temperatures when new kids are born.  Then, I use only a Premier 1 Heat Lamp.

Blankets/Sweaters

Goats look so cute in little sweaters and toddler footie pajamas, but do these clothes keep them warmer?  Nope.  In fact, they make them colder.  In goats, the hair shaft stands up to trap pockets of warm air underneath when it’s really cold.  If you cover their fur with a sweater or blanket, you keep it weighed down and it is unable to do what it is designed to do.  Keep the sweaters off and your goats will be warmer.

Management Practices That Can Improve Herd Health in Winter

While the above topics cover the basics you need to care for goats in winter, I want to talk a little more in-depth about some practices we’ve seen even better results with.

When we moved our herd of then 16 goats to our new farm in ’16, we thought we were in Heaven.  Our big, huge 1940’s barn had ample room (“Let’s get 50 does!”) for hay and goats, kidding and everything.  It is an incredible barn!  That first year, we wintered the does in the barn with a feeder indoors as well.  I really loved the convenience of having a feeder mere steps from the hay stack.

Everything seemed great, until we had a cold snap later that winter.  The does, cozy and spoiled in the barn, hadn’t built thick coats because they spent most of their time inside.  We kidded in single digits and even late pregnant does, who usually stay hotter on account of all those kids, were shivering and miserable.  We did what we could to help them stay warm, but those were a tough few days.

A short time later that winter, I brought in two new does and I marveled at their thick, fluffy coats.  The difference?  Those does had been fed outside all winter.  I was amazed at how different they looked to my own herd that year.

Come spring, we had the difficult task of mucking out the barn.  It turned into hardpack that we’re still struggling to completely peel up (let’s face it, no one’s rushing out to complete this task!) and we realized moving waste to the garden wasn’t a great option, so the next winter we tried a new tactic – feeding does in the garden and moving the feeder regularly so the waste would be automatically spread.  This worked so well it’s what we still do, even though our herd is getting larger and the amount of hay we feed increasing.  Here’s how we do it.

First, they winter in a small shelter with low walls.  It’s 4′ high, 8′ wide and 16′ deep, open on the front side only, so a deep 3-sided shelter.  I have seen an improvement in retained heat because of how short it is, so even though it’s more cumbersome to clean out, we keep it that way to help keep the girls warmer.  Why not the barn?  It is on the other side of an easement road from the garden, so we couldn’t shelter in it and feed in the garden.

An important aspect of this small shelter is the distance from it to the feeder, which brought about another unexpected benefit.  The goats must walk about 200′ from the shelter to their hay feeder, then about another 200′ from the hay feeder to the water source, which is then about 400′ away from the shelter.  At first, I was concerned that all the extra walking would be a negative energy drain, but the reverse happened.  The first kidding season after changing to this feeding setup was markedly improved in both kidding ease and labor time.  Of course it makes sense, but seeing the difference in person has me convinced of the necessity of regular winter exercise for the does.

Outdoor Feeding

Another important factor is having the feeder out of the shelter.  I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this in a rainy climate, but it works great for us in snowy northeast Washington.  We use a simple feeder made of cattle panels bent into a long rectangle – remember, we want waste in our setup so the garden has mulch.  This feeder has no roof, but we do feed 4 bales at a time, two stacked on each other.  The does will burrow into the bales, making holes with their heads.  The tightness of the baled hay (even after being cut) keeps most of the snow out so their hay stays edible.  They also are well insulated and don’t mind standing out in the snow to eat.  This has resulted in thick, luscious coats that keep the does warm even during cold snaps.

These practices of feeding the does outside and encouraging exercise have contributed to greater overall health, cold hardiness and ease of kidding.  They’ve also contributed to a lighter workload for us since we have no waste to move.  Our garden loves it, too!  Stay tuned, I’m working on a post about kidding in cold weather next.